I recently attended a conference at Birkbeck, University of London on ‘The Gendered Dynamics of Power’ that explored what sustains gender bias despite decades of feminist critique.
It is important for organisations to understand gender dynamics – not only to achieve greater equality but also to gain what they are missing. If more women were in power, organisations could potentially benefit from a more ‘balanced’ leadership approach – resulting in less risk-taking in decision-making, a bigger talent pool with the inclusion of competent females and better workplace behaviour.
Whilst I generally agreed with the conference discussion around the causes of the long-standing problem, on reflection I was clearly wearing my practical consultant hat as I was surprised by the conclusions for how to address the problem. It was simply concluded that the solution required political large-scale involvement and the David Cameron’s of the world to take action to tackle the enormity of the issue and make any real change. Although there is fact in it, it seemed to me to come from a helpless position of belief that only a top down approach can be adopted. I see it like any transformational change we would support – I believe pushing a concurrent bottom-up approach that starts with women, who are on the receiving end of gender bias and ensuring proactivity can help to embed change and speed up the process.
The Crux of the Problem
Massive gender gaps exist at more senior levels of organisations – figures from April 2015 indicate that in the corporate world, women still only hold 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEO roles.
Policies that prohibit sex discrimination and diversity targets that seek to increase female numbers promote the idea that women have the same rights and opportunities. However, despite these efforts, gender inequality will exist beneath the surface. Organisations and individuals within tend not to deliberately discriminate against women. Rather gender-biased behaviour stems from historical imprints of women in power having been deprecated e.g. Snow White and the evil Queen and historical societal expectations and pressures that impact the way we educate and use language as well as embedded cultural beliefs, traditional workplace practices, and habitual patterns of interaction that act as powerful but invisible barriers inadvertently favouring men. The crux of the problem is that it is all pervasive – it is not simply men who act accordingly, women themselves also do so unknowingly, in effect condemning themselves.
Example 1: Corroborating Gender Bias
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, for example, shares her revelatory experience of this. In the Q&A following a talk she gave, despite saying she’ll take two more questions, she had proceeded to take more questions after that, only from the men. It wasn’t until a female listener approached her stating her biggest learning from the talk was to always continue raising her hand that Sandburg realised, on hearing she’d take no more questions, all the females had put down their hands leaving behind only the males whose questions were subsequently answered. She had not initially realised that 1) unconsciously she had corroborated gender bias, and 2) the questioning females had also contrived the situation by pertaining to rules.
Example 2: Attributing Success to Luck
In their book ‘Man-Made‘ (1), Tutchell and Edmonds interview successful working women in Britain (£150k+ earners). Many modestly describe themselves as simply having been ‘lucky’ to have made their way in the tough world despite eventually admitting to working and being told by their bosses they would have to harder than their male counterparts, deliberately taking on very difficult jobs to move up the ranks and having to resiliently coping with the recurring challenges. Luck is likely only a small contributor, if at all – they simply did not give themselves the credit.
Example 3: Small Things Can Accentuate Gender Differences
The female Chief People Officer of a client entertainment company we worked with once shared the challenge of physically keeping up with colleagues on the ground when conforming to the current societal norm of wearing heels to visit the different male-dominated outlet locations. As she realised, small things can accentuate gender differences to fuel biased perception. Acting to our gender identities can play to notions of male masculinity and practicality versus female femininity and irrationality, particularly if ill-suited to the situation.
How can women start to make more impact to dispel gender inequality?
Leadership development and coaching initiatives could focus on:
- Building personal impact – supporting women to develop courage, put themselves out there at the forefront of action, and act as well as dress for power – as Sheryl Sandberg would say, to “sit at the table”
- Developing individual’s internal locus of control – supporting women to attribute success to their own efforts, driving proactive behaviour, and developing their sense of control in difficult situations
- Enhancing resilience – building women’s capability to spring back from the hurdles presented by the male-dominated world
- Developing adaptability – enhancing women’s capability to flex their approach to match the style and approach of their male colleagues.
From our experience, not many organisations look at the issue of gender beyond diversity requirements and few focus efforts on tackling behaviours and underlying perceptions and beliefs that cause the imbalance in the first place. Perhaps organisations are missing a trick by not providing more leadership development and coaching for women with the intentions above: aside from the benefits of a more balanced leadership approach, bigger talent pool and better workplace behaviour, organisations could gain reputation for their proactivity in driving the cultural change and attract more female talent.
1. ‘Man-Made’ by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds (2015) published by Gower